Cleverly warns Tory MPs another leadership battle a ‘catastrophically bad idea’

James Cleverly has warned Tory MPs considering submitting no-confidence letters in Rishi Sunak not to “jump out of an aeroplane” without a parachute, calling another leadership contest a “catastrophically bad idea”.

A disastrous set of local elections for the Conservative Party on May 2 could galvanise MPs unhappy with the Prime Minister into launching a challenge against his leadership.

A drubbing in the mayoral and council elections could lead some Tories to view replacing Mr Sunak as leader as the only way to improve the party’s dire polling and avert a similar wipeout in a general election, but the Home Secretary told them not to “feed the psychodrama”.

Mr Sunak has insisted that he intends to call a general election in the second half of the year but there has been speculation that he could fire the starting gun earlier to thwart a possible Tory leadership battle.

Asked for his message to wavering colleagues, Mr Cleverly told reporters at a press gallery lunch in Westminster on Thursday: “If you’re going to jump out of an aeroplane, please make sure you’ve got a parachute before you leave the aeroplane. And don’t say ‘no, we’ll work that out on the way down’.

“I think those people who think that another leadership campaign, as truncated as it might be between now and the election, is anything other than a catastrophically bad idea – I don’t get it.”

Many Westminster analysts see October or November as the favoured period for a national poll. The latest possible date Mr Sunak could hold the election is January 28 2025.

Mr Cleverly said Mr Sunak inherited a “really difficult situation” because of Covid, the Ukraine war and through the “disruption” at the end of 2022 – when Liz Truss was Prime Minister for 49 days – which he conceded was “a disruption of our own making”.

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak could face fresh scheming from Tory MPs if his party suffers heavy losses at the local and mayoral elections (Henry Nicholls/PA)

Tory MPs should focus on the progress the Government is making on the economy, policing and crime levels, the Cabinet minister said.

“If you can tell me that you’re willing to sacrifice all of that and our ability to talk about that, then you’re doing it wrong.

“And we should have the discipline to stay focused on what we have achieved in government and what we’re planning to do next, rather than feed the psychodrama… It’s not how you do good government.”

The Tory Party is already on its fifth leader since 2015.

Mr Cleverly said he was not from Mr Sunak’s “political tribe” when he entered No 10 but that he had come to know him as “a very thoughtful, very clever, incredibly hard-working person”.

But he also made a joke at the Prime Minister’s expense as he addressed the event, at which senior politicians traditionally give an amusing speech.

Telling of his appointment as Home Secretary, Mr Cleverly said: “He looked me in the eye – and he had to stand on his wallet to get there – and said ‘James, I need you to go to the Home Office’.”

The Tories are expected to suffer heavy losses in a swathe of local votes next week but it is the potential loss of two Conservative mayoralties which could prove a flashpoint for Mr Sunak’s fortunes.

Defeat for West Midlands Mayor Andy Street and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen could anger restive Tory backbenchers.

Mr Cleverly said: “I think their chances of success are underpriced because of their excellent track record of delivery.”

The senior Tory also launched an attack on London Mayor Sadiq Khan, accusing the Labour politician of talking “more about Gaza than black kids getting murdered in south-east London” and being “asleep at the wheel”.